Thursday: Tampa Bay (Tampa, Bucs' training facility).
Three football nuggets: Dallas Clark's healthy -- for now -- and looking like a good security blanket for Josh Freeman ... Jeremy Zuttah's transition from left guard to center has gone well in the wake of the Jeff Faine firing ... With two rookie backs (Doug Martin of Boise State, Michael Smith of Utah State) impressing early, LeGarrette Blount has some pressure to keep his carries (184 last year) at the same level. Blount's taking the challenge seriously, but Martin may be a better all-around player anyway.
The Schiano Factor will be the story of the year for the Bucs.
I say Schiano's going to be the best of this new lot of head coaches. He coached in the NFL as an assistant, then made the worst program in major-college football (Rutgers) top-25 caliber, turned down Michigan to wait for a job that felt right, sorely tempted the Rams in January, and then got the job he wanted -- a young team with defensive talent, a quarterback and room on the salary cap.
Five questions, five minutes with Schiano after practice:
How'd you know this was the right job?
Schiano: "I knew I wanted it when I heard [Oregon coach] Chip Kelly got it, and I was pissed. I wanted this job. So when he decided to stay, I was really happy. Guys like Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, I knew about them, and I knew they wanted to be great, and those are the kind of players I want to coach.''
Having a tough time adjusting to all these NFL rules?
Schiano: "Well, I really like the personnel side of things. [GM] Mark [Dominick] has been incredible. He's been tutoring me on the process. Even though I was in the league for three years, my whole world was defensive backs. And now to be involved in all that stuff, it's neat. I won't know all the difficulties until we go through this season. One of the things that shocked me was all the rules, the things you can and can't do with the players. I thought once you left college football it was all up to you. The CBA is one letter less than the NCAA but just as restrictive."
How did Rutgers prepare you for this?
Schiano: "The number one thing that I'm blessed with is that I was a head coach for 11 years. The hard jump is going from an assistant coach to head coach, because then there are things that are foreign to you. Whether it's in the NFL or college, the most important thing is leading and managing a whole bunch of people. We're talking about a staff of 20, 90 players in camp, trainers, managers -- all those things. When you're an assistant coach and you have a bad day, maybe 16 guys suffer. When you're a coordinator and you have a bad day, maybe 40 or 50 guys suffer. When you're the head coach and you have a bad day, you screw up the day for 160 people. That's the biggest thing for me."
You ran your college team like an NFL team, didn't you?
Schiano: "I would tell kids that in recruiting. The reason that I do it though isn't so much that you can get to the NFL, but because I believe it's the best way to do things. The way we met, the way we installed, the way we walked through -- that's why Rutgers players do well in the NFL. It was demanding in the classroom. It was demanding and you were held accountable. Not all of our guys were first- or second-round picks, but we had many late-round guys make teams and they stuck on teams because they knew how to prepare. To me, that's the secret."
How've these players accepted you so far?
Schiano: "Great. Just great. These aren't only great players. I like them as men. Ronde Barber, for instance. In practice the other day, he's holding the bag on a punt-return drill. I mean, this is a great player. I figured out no player in NFL history has as many non-offensive touchdowns, if you take away punt and kick returns. He has 13 defensive touchdowns. No one in history has that many. And he's holding the bag on the punt-return drill.''
Friday: Jacksonville (Jacksonville, EverBank Field).
Three football nuggets: The $7-million-a-year free-agent wideout, Laurent Robinson, hasn't had a starry first week of camp, but he caught a bullet from Blaine Gabbert on a well-run cross in the Friday scrimmage ... Jag brass is working hard to integrate football analytics into football strategy, as are several teams I've seen on this trip, and it'll be interesting to see how the Moneyball stuff is accepted by the coaches and traditional scouts ... Organization's very bullish on second-round rush end Andre Branch. Wouldn't be surprised if he wins a starting job opposite Jeremy Mincey. Also on the line, I spent some time with defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who says he's almost all the way back from an incident outside a bar in April that left him in danger of losing sight in one eye. "I didn't panic 'til the doctors panicked,'' he said. "But it's a lot better now.'' Knighton's dropped his weight to a pro-career-low of 328 and looks good.
It all comes down to Gabbert.
Let's assume wideout Justin Blackmon, the last remaining first-round holdout, will make it to camp soon; the two sides are battling over how much risk the team should take if Blackmon, who has two alcohol incidents while driving, has another. Then the question becomes whether the team will cave to rushing champ Maurice Jones-Drew, who has two years left on his deal at $4.5 and $4.95 million. (Doesn't look like they'll address the contract and set a precedent for players with two years left on their deals.)
With such a shaky performance by last year's first-rounder, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, common sense says Jacksonville has to have Jones-Drew playing great for the team to have a chance. But wise, old Jacksonville scribe Vito Stellino has it crystal-clear correct when he notes that the Jaguars aren't going to prosper, Jones-Drew or no Jones-Drew, unless Gabbert is significantly better than he was last season.
And I mean significantly. There were times last year Gabbert looked scared under a heavy rush, and his numbers reflected it -- Curtis Painter had a better passer rating with Indianapolis, for crying out loud. I could accept the he-had-no-offseason-program reasoning, what with the NFL lockout. And each player is different. But I'd argue Cam Newton had the best rookie season an NFL player has ever had -- 4,051 yards passing, 35 passing and rushing touchdowns combined -- and the lockout didn't seem to hurt him.
So fast-forward to the Jags' night scrimmage inside their stadium Friday night. Unfair as it is, this was a significant test for Gabbert, to see how the new teaching group of Mike Mularkey, Bob Bratkowski and Greg Olson were working with him. He threw a nice 21-yard cross to Laurent Robinson, led a 70-yard scoring drive, and threw two accurate line-drive touchdown passes in the red zone. I'm not sure he threw a ball 18 yards past the line of scrimmage in the session, so this certainly wasn't the acid test. The coaches accomplished what they wanted to. This summer is about building Gabbert's confidence after the shattering 2011 debacle (he was the lowest-rated quarterback among NFL qualifiers), and this was a start. No deep throws, just an emphasis on chain moving.
Mularkey emphasized to me that he didn't think Gabbert ever played scared last year. (Sure looked it to me.) His best point to me: "When I coached Matt Ryan [in Atlanta], he entered the league after his fifth-year senior year. This is the equivalent for Blaine, his fifth year [of college and pro football combined]. He came out as a true junior.''
Mularkey's right -- the expectations probably were unfair last year. But Gabbert was picked 10th overall, and the coaches probably will have more patience with him than the fans this year.
Sunday: Atlanta (Flowery Branch, Ga., Falcons' training facility).
Three football nuggets: Offensive coaches and QB Matt Ryan walk off field giddy after the post-afternoon practice because of three deep-ball completions, two to Julio Jones, in the competitive seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 periods ... Ryan's got more of an uncluttered mind under Dirk Koetter, from the looks of things ... Mike Smith told me he wants linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to take the role as defensive team leader, with ex-middle 'backer Curtis Lofton in New Orleans now. Weatherspoon can do it, but he'll have to yell louder than Asante Samuel.
The Falcons sure talk a good game.
What a yappy, infectious practice. If you don't watch much football practice, you'd be surprised at the competition that goes on, and the taunting on some teams. It's almost immature. No: It is immature. But that's the game that goes on. "You compete, and you have fun,'' said Sean Weatherspoon.
For the last four years, Samuel was the mouth that roared in practices and in games for Philadelphia. Now he's the mouth of the south. "Guys see the fun he's having and they can't help but have fun too,'' Weatherspoon said.
Matt Ryan has to hold onto a ball in the pocket too long. Samuel screams: "Coverage sack! Coverage sack! I do it all!"
Backup cornerback Christopher Owens intercepts a ball off a Falcon backup quarterback, and the hooting starts. Insults against the offense, derisive laughter.
Cornerback Dominique Franks picks off John Parker Wilson, the backup quarterback. Two plays later, Franks dives to break up another pass. Samuel begins doing a graceful Hula, mocking the offense right near their huddle. "Going to Hawaii, baby!'' he sing-songs out.
Julio Jones pushes off slightly (very slightly, really) and catches a deep ball from Ryan, and Samuels makes a beeline for the back judge. "WE CAN'T GET NO DAMN CALLS!'' he shrieks. "All we want is one call! I'm gonna tell my mama, 'Don't watch.' ''
Huh? Watch what?
Anyway, it was a fun late afternoon at the old ballyard, with good plays on both sides and comic relief thrown in for good measure.
"Football's got to be fun,'' Weatherspoon said. "You get motivated to play well out here by guys like Asante. I think we all feed off him."
I can see how Samuel would grate on an offense. But you know what coaches would say about that? You don't want him cackling like a hen all day, score some points and shut him up.
The Week Ahead
"We just hit 1,000 miles,'' SI staffer Matt Gagne said this morning around 1:30 as we busted it for northern Virginia toward Redskins camp. It feels like it. Matt and fellow driver Jack Ford, a Villanova kid working for SI this summer, have been terrific on the SI-EvoShield NFL Training Camp Trip, sponsored by the five-year-old Georgia-based company making protective gear for athletes. Jack's been a horse, handling the entire Davie-to-Tampa and Tampa-to-Jacksonville and Jacksonville-to-Atlanta drives on back-to-back-to-back days.
Jack and Matt have allowed me to write and tweet while the miles pass by, as they did through the pitch-black of a southern night and early Monday morning.
So here's our schedule for the week. For all the Bills fans out there (I'll make it up to you; promise) I apologize in advance for missing the Thursday night game and not being able to work the locker room afterward. I just feel the Eagles' preseason game is more important, given the events of Sunday.
Today: Redskins, Ashburn, Va.
Tuesday: Giants Albany, N.Y.
Wednesday: Jets Cortland, N.Y.
Thursday: Eagles-Steelers game Philadelphia
Friday: Browns-Lions game Detroit
Saturday: Bears Bourbonnais, Ill.
I'll be home for three days, and resume the trip for one more week beginning Wednesday, the 15th, at Chiefs camp in Missouri.
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